Several months ago, an associate professor of anthropology and genetics at the Pennsylvania State University proposed marriage to me via text message. I answered in the affirmative in the same medium. We then began making plans for a meaningful atheist ceremony in which passages from Darwin’s Origin of Species and Robert Ingersoll’s poetry would be read. The reception would feature a double-helix-shaped cake with proto-human bride and groom cake-toppers.
We would soon find that our wedding, as we had planned it, would hold all the contractual and legal significance of a debutante party. That is, the marriage license itself would become the elusive piece of the puzzle required to complete the legal picture.
Before the reader’s suspicions advance into indelicate territory, I should make clear that my spouse-to-be was not my father, uncle, brother, son, grandson, or first cousin—all prohibited by Pennsylvania marital law. Nor were we wed to others. And, to eliminate the most obvious suspicion about our disqualification: my betrothed did not sport a vulva. Indeed, my fiancé and I were representatives of opposite sexes, a fact we verified firsthand out of respect for Pennsylvania law.
The difficulty began when Dr. Mark D. Shriver and I, at the suggestion of our atheist celebrant Margaret Downey, sought a so-called self-uniting license. In Pennsylvania, thanks to the Quaker tradition of clergyless marriage ceremonies, such a license is available that allows two individuals to pronounce themselves husband and wife, as long as two witnesses attest to the proceedings. With this type of license, we could have Margaret lead the ceremony and then pronounce ourselves. She did caution us that other atheist couples had run into resistance throughout the state. I concede that, upon learning that a fight could be had, we gleefully went in search of it.
The struggle went something like this: when we informed the Centre County Clerk of Orphans’ Court of our application for a “self-uniting” license, we were asked if we were Quakers. When we answered no, that we were atheists, we were told quite flatly that said license would not be granted to non-Quakers. Later, on official letterhead, the county apparently decided to extend the exclusive honor to two other groups—chosen, it would seem, quite arbitrarily. That is, the gracious inclusion would now make “Quakers, Buddhists, or Amish” qualified for the license. In fact, no such groups are mentioned in Section 1502 of the Pennsylvania marital statute, which refers simply to “all cases in which the parties intend to solemnize their marriage by religious ceremony without officiating clergy. . . .” (True, the word religious is problematic but can be gotten around with the argument that religious cannot be adequately defined for this purpose.)
Further e-mails, some of which involved the county solicitor, reminded us that we were “welcome to apply in another county,” and that the Clerk’s Office “cannot interpret the law.” We were repeatedly assured that “the law takes care of atheists” since we could, in fact, be pronounced by a county official. Clearly, it did not occur to the Clerk’s Office that being married before a stranger or in a courthouse might be unacceptable to nonreligious couples. Like their God-fearing neighbors, atheists, too, may prefer to celebrate their unions privately, with their families and friends, in legally binding ceremonies.
Throughout these exchanges, the acting clerk of Orphans’ Court herself referred to the Section 1502 license as “a Quaker license,” apparently in complete ignorance of the actual text of the statute. In fact, in later correspondence, the elected official somehow concluded that the self-uniting law no longer existed, and, indeed, it had been expunged from Pennsylvania marital law, a presumption she could have easily tested and belied by opening a book.
Even without Downey’s forewarnings, we should not have been surprised. As a Deep South native with four years in a northern state, I have come to the conclusion that social progress is not dependent upon latitude. In fact, a discussion with my fiancé’s friend, a fellow Penn State professor of anthropology, unearthed another interesting morsel, leaving us with the near certainty that our own peculiar roadblock would remain impassable. He and his wife had been married in 1983 in the same county. Upon application for their license, they had been asked how many of their grandparents were white and how many were black. (It was unremarkable that an anachronistic law remained on the books. Remarkable, however, was the clerk’s apparent assumption that he was still obliged to observe it in 1983.)
It is bad enough that an elected official and the county solicitor saw nothing inherently wrong in denying or approving a license based on religious affiliation. It is bad enough that they thought they had the authority even to request information about our religious affiliation. (No such information is necessary to apply for, say, a driver’s license.) It is bad enough that state employees were unaware that religious discrimination is a big no-no. Worse, however, is my lingering suspicion that they did know. After all, now that Jews, Catholics, and Muslims are off-limits, atheists—along with smokers and Dolly Parton fans— must appear to be temptingly fair game.
I should also mention that, while our atheist friends were not totally unruffled by our account, neither did they seem to understand its relevance. Nearly all proposed that we ask a friend to ordain him or herself via the Web. (This honor can be obtained with the ease of sending a PajamaGram.) Several suggested we simply lie about our religious affiliation. True, these loopholes were easily at our disposal. However, slipping through them seemed less noble than actually untangling the Gordian knot itself. To rely on deceit, after all, is to give and acknowledge power. How superior it is instead to overcome that power. What’s more, why did it not trouble these well-meaning loophole finders that such subterfuge should be necessary in the first place? Indeed, lying about our religion (or lack thereof) seemed tantamount to a suffragette shoving a sock in her pants to cast a vote.
And what, I wondered, would a license grant us permission to do? My libertarian leanings have often led me to the conclusion that legal marriage would best be abolished altogether. Let marriage be the business of churches and clubs. Let the very definition be bound only by the limitations of one’s own chosen tradition. Thus, heterosexual monogamy alone would no longer enjoy the enviable and exclusive governmental stamp of approval. No such approval would be necessary. Gone would be the question—one that surely nags at those who wish to uphold the “sanctity” of marriage: how to deal with hermaphrodites, transsexuals, and the otherwise sexually ambiguous? Equally irrelevant under the law would be homosexual unions and polygamous communities. (My engagement has not put to rest my personal stake in the latter—my fantasy of forming a polyandrous union adding Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.)
My story ends rather abruptly. No, the clerk of Orphans’ Court did not happen upon the statistic that atheist couples divorce less frequently than Christians and thus send us our license as a gilded invitation. Nor did she or her office conclude via epiphany that the First Amendment had some cool ideas.
Rather, my fiancé and I found another little gem in the same amendment of the same Bill of Rights. Just a couple of commas beyond the part that Centre County had apparently intended to ignore, one finds a handy phrase regarding freedom of the press. We called a local news channel and pitched our story, set up an interview that aired on a Saturday, and received an e-mail from the Clerk of Orphans’ Court the following Monday informing us that we could have our self-uniting license.
Whether or not the Clerk’s Office ever read our thoughtful e-mails regarding case law and antidiscrimination research, I’ll never know. I do know that what heartfelt appeals to religious freedom couldn’t solve, exposure of religious intolerance did.
In the end, I ungrudgingly admit: as wedding plan hurdles go, ours have been more stimulating than disagreements about flatware.